How business can offer ex-offenders a better chance

At Virgin, we’ve long believed in the importance of supporting people with criminal convictions, especially those who have spent time in prison. As a business, it’s part of our responsibility to support people who deserve a better chance to help get their lives back on track.

Richard Branson

I’ve spoken about the case for working with ex-offenders on many occasions. At Virgin, we’re more than aware that it provides clear business benefits, such as access to what is widely seen as a loyal and strong talent pool, as well as improving the disruptive and entrepreneurial potential of our teams. 

While we’ve come a long way over the years, we’re always looking for ways we can improve our work. That’s why our team at Virgin Management brought together the People Directors of nearly all our businesses worldwide to discuss the ways we can do more to support groups like ex-offenders.

One of the organisations that addressed our companies was Census Life, an award-winning social enterprise that gives businesses the chance to hire people currently serving a prison sentence.

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Working in 13 prisons across England and Wales, Census Life’s in-custody work programme replicates an authentic call centre work environment. The programme hires current prisoners to work as customer service professionals, helping them develop valuable skills and experience for when they leave prison. To date, the Census Life team have helped 300 people into employment on release. 

One of those people is Nicola Whitbread, who spoke movingly at our event. Nicola’s story is one of extraordinary trauma and enormous bravery. A survivor of violent domestic abuse, she began to use drugs and eventually needed to fund her growing addiction by offending – shoplifting, which saw her go to jail 12 times. Caught in a vicious cycle of offending, addiction and custody, Nicola lost everything – her children, her family, her friends. 

Nicola Whitbread

On the last few occasions in jail, Nicola talked about being fortunate enough to work in the Census Life call centre at HMP Peterborough. In her words, “Going to work each day was my lifeline. Not only was I earning money, I was treated as a valued member of the organisation and for those few hours each day I didn’t feel like I was just another prisoner.”

18 months after leaving prison and a promotion later, Nicola is the proud manager of Census Life’s life insurance campaign. She manages a team of 20+ agents and trains them in customer service skills. 

Nicola’s story is one of extraordinary fortitude, and it’s a wonderful reminder of the role business can play in helping turn people’s lives around.

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Here are some of the ways your business can support ex-offender rehabilitation:

1. Hire ex-offenders

There are now hundreds of UK businesses that directly employ people that come out of prison, and there are several ways your business can do it too. Companies like Timpson lead the way, having hired 148 people from prison to work in their business last year. Other companies like Greene King are a fantastic example of integrating ex-offender hiring as part of their pledge to support social mobility throughout the UK hospitality sector. There are plenty of charities that partner with business to make that happen - Offploy is an excellent example, supporting over 150 people to date with criminal convictions into employment. Other charities worth taking a look at include The Forward Trust, Catch 22 and Working Chance. 

Other businesses have chosen to Ban the Box, this means removing the tick box from application forms and asking about criminal convictions later in the recruitment process. If you’re not ready to start hiring directly from prisons, this is a great way to get started.

2. Involve your people

Organisations like StandOut offer the opportunity for businesses to volunteer their staff to run CV workshops and mock interviews for people coming out of prison. It’s a good way to allow your people to share their knowledge and expertise for those who could greatly benefit. It might seem like a small gesture, but sometimes these are all that’s needed to give people with criminal convictions the hope that someone is willing to give them a chance. 

3. Buy products made by ex-offenders

There are plenty of social enterprises that work within the walls of prisons giving inmates the chance to build the type of skills that will help them thrive on the outside. Redemption Roasters are one such organisation, running coffee academies in prisons throughout the UK, where they teach inmates competition-level barista skills. They have several coffee shops around London but you can also buy their coffee wholesale, a perfect way to use your supply chain for good. 

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